The Music Schop is a resource for worship musicians and pastors. Song analysis of popular worship songs, theory lessons, reviews of worship resources, and tips and tricks for drummers, keyboard players, guitar players, bass players – the entire band. Written by Chris Schopmeyer.

Theory Thursday: Part Seven, The Major Scale

For several weeks we’ve been discussing horizontal music, how music works in time. This week we return to vertical music: what is the framework of pitches on which we build our songs?

pic- horizontal and vertical axis.png


So far in the music theory series we’ve learned the following about pitches: 

  • Pitches are frequencies: vibrations moving through the air measured in cycles per second (hertz). 
  • Octaves are created every time we double a frequency. The pitch A is 220hz. We perceive 440hz as the same pitch, just higher – an octave higher. 
  • Western music has split each octave into 12 tones, or half steps. This can be easily seen on the piano.

[If this is new to you, read part two of the series on whole steps and half steps before going further.]

Screen Shot 2012-09-21 at 1.02.44 PM.png


Rarely does a piece of music use all twelve pitches. Rather, we build our songs around seven notes of a scale. 

There are many types of scales. In part two of this series I gave you this audio example:

  1. C major 
  2. C harmonic minor 
  3. C dorian
  4. C whole-tone 

5. C minor pentatonic 
6. C mixolydian
7. C major

Each of these scales have a unique color. What is it that sets them apart from each other? It is the pattern of whole steps and half steps. 

The Major Scale

The modern worship, pop, or rock player can go extremely far by simply understanding the major scale.

Tonalities outside the major scale have never been used widely in popular music, but today their use is even more rare. 

For instance, I remember as a kid we'd sing minor songs in church.

We don't sings songs like that any more. 

Nearly 100%of the songs played in worship services today are in a major key using a major scale. (There are exceptions, like “Revelation Song” that is built around a mixolydian scale.) 

What is the major scale?

The major scale is simply a collection of whole steps and half steps. The major scale is built as follows: W W H W W W H. Rather than writing about it, I decided a video would be the best vehicle to discuss it today. 


The major scale is the framework for pitches in modern worship music. If you do not know your major scales in all twelve keys, what are you waiting on?

People that do not know or understand their major scales are at a severe disadvantage: they are managing 12 tones for every song when they only need to worry about seven. 

Knowing and internalizing your major scales has a huge payoff. Between muscle memory and cognitive understanding, you should find fewer wrong notes, more command of your instrument, and better memorization of songs. 

Theory Thursday: Part Five, Breaking Down Time Signatures

Last week’s post looked at the theoretical side of bars and time signatures. This week let's look at the practical application of individual time signatures. 

To demonstrate the importance of this, I can think of nothing better than this blast from my past: 

Ouch, there is a lot to learn here. A few observations: 

  • Starting with the right time signature makes a big difference. Could the two starts be more different?
  • Yours truly was the MD and the pianist. I've got to take responsibility for this disaster. 
  • The band is so bad the soloist doesn’t panic. He starts laughing!
  • The lyric guy displays “one more time around” on the screen as we restart. 

So, what in the world happened? I’ll revisit that question at the end of the post. 

Time Signatures in Modern Churches 

Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) reports biannually the top 100 songs used in worship services across the United States. I was able to make a few interesting observations:

  • 86% are in 4/4
  • 8% are in 3/4
  • 6% are in 6/8 

While theoretically there are scores of time signatures that could be used, there are really only three being used in modern worship music.  


4/4 Time 

In 4/4 time, also referred to as "common time", there are 4 beats per bar (top number) and the quarter note gets the beat (bottom number). 

Time signatures don't just define how a bar is constructed, but they also imply how the bar should be weighted – which beats are emphasized. In traditional 4/4, beats 1 and 3 are emphasized. These are what I call the anchor beats. Speak this out loud, emphasizing the numbers in bold:

One two three four; One two three four

Your anchor beats are where you will find phrases begin, lyrics are emphasized, and grooves are established. 

Take for example number 14 on CCLI's top 100 list, "Forever Reign". 

Although the drummer is playing every quarter note, beats one and three have a slight emphasis, you especially feel this as the audience starts clapping. Additionally, listen to the lyrical phrase. Beats one and three are emphasized and the key words (syllables) all fall on these beats.

You are good, You are good when there's nothing good in me....
Oh, I'm running to Your arms, I'm running to Your arms...


The backbeat emphasizes the 'off' beats in 4/4 time. If 1 and 3 are the anchor beats, 2 and 4 are the off beats. More than anything else, I think the backbeat has been the defining characteristic of modern popular music over the last sixty years. The backbeat is what makes you want to dance or clap your hands.

Interesting story, when I was 22 years-old I applied to be the worship leader at a church. Things went well, and I was scheduled to come lead worship for the church as a last step in the process. I sat down with the pastor the week before to discuss the music, and no joke, he said he had changed his mind about the music for the church and no longer wanted drums or any percussive instruments. I asked him why. He said "I've come to believe that a strong backbeat can lead someone to sin."

No joke. He said that. After staring at him for a good ten seconds, I cocked my head and said, "are you for real?"

I never made it to Sunday – thank the Lord. I often wonder about that pastor and his church....

Regardless of whether it causes you to sin (it doesn't), the backbeat is the staple of modern worship music. The backbeat is almost always defined by the drummer's snare. Kick patterns change, strumming patterns change, but the common thread through all 4/4 songs are not the anchor notes, but the backbeat. The more the anchor notes are emphasized, the straighter the song will feel. The more the anchor notes are implied and the backbeat is emphasized, the groovier it will feel.

3/4 Time

In 3/4 time, there are 3 beats per bar (top number) with the quarter note getting the beat (bottom number). The waltz is in 3/4 time: One two three One two three. 

The drummer in 3/4 time will most often play the kick on beat 1 and the snare on beat 3. Check out "Jesus Paid It All", number 76 in the top 100 worship songs so far this year.

As music continues to mature, you'll find that bands, their drummers in particular, are getting more creative in defining these time signatures. Take Hillsong Live's "Stronger". Notice that in this pattern beat 1 is definitely still the anchor – all the chord changes, groove emphasis, and lyrical phrases land on beat 1 – but the drummer is emphasizing both beat 1 and 3 with the kick and placing the snare on 2 and the "and of 3". 

6/8 Time

In 6/8 time, there are six beats per bar (top number) with the eighth note getting the beat (bottom number). Beats 1 and 4 are emphasized, creating two groups of three: One two three four five six. This can also be thought of like a big 2 count: One La Li  Two La Li   One La Li  Two La Li. 

The drummer in 6/8 time will generally place the kick on beat one and the snare on beat four (or the big 2). Check out Tomlin's "Indescribable". 

3/4 vs. 6/8

You may have noticed that 3/4 and 6/8 are mathematically equal. So why have both in music? Great question! 

We know that in 3/4 the quarter note gets the beat. Quarter notes are made up of two eighth notes, right? Therefore 3/4 is made up of three groups of two eighth notes.

In 6/8 the eighth note gets the beat, allowing for two groups of three eighth notes. This creates a completely different groove.



There are really only three time signatures that make up modern worship music: 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8. An understanding of how these time signatures operate and are weighted will make a big difference in the effectiveness of your band. 

I started this post with a video of our band's crash and burn back in 2009. So what happened?

  • The previous song was in 6/8 
  • The eighth note pulse between the songs was almost identical. The previous song in 6/8 was at 160 bpm (eighth note gets the beat). The song that crashed was in 4/4 at 80 bpm (quarter note gets the beat – which means the eighth note is at 160, the same tempo as the previous song.) 
  • The piano part of the second song started with a pattern 3 sixteenth notes. The pattern of three sixteenth notes in 4/4 creates a syncopated feel. In 6/8 it is a natural, straight feel. 
  • Although the click track changed, some folks in the band were still feeling 6/8 and didn't switch.

Time signatures make a big difference. Understanding the theory behind how they work will help you avoid a crazy mistake like the one we experienced. More importantly though, it will help you become a confident leader. The Church needs competent and confident leaders in our worship leading groups. 

Question: What are some of your most embarrassing moments in your bands? Anything ever go haywire with time signatures? 

Theory Thursday: Part Four, Measuring Music

[This is part four of the Theory Thursday series. Find out more about the series here. Find all music theory posts here.]

As I've led bands over the years, I've been surprised how many musicians don’t really understand the measure. Both self-taught and trained musicians can undervalue how bars and phrases work. This causes all sorts of problems. 


Why Measure?

It's easy to think about measuring in the context of construction. Let's say I want to build a tree house for my twins. But imagine I start without knowing the difference between centimeters and inches. Maybe I’m too lazy for a level, so I eyeball everything. And while I labor over getting just the right color of paint, I spend little time considering weight distribution. 

I can build this tree house. But will you let your kid in it? 

What about roads? Do I have to know the rules of ‘right of way’ in order to drive? Do I need to have a sense for the length of a mile? Must I know a double yellow line should not be crossed? Do roads even need to have lines at all?

The answer to these questions is no. But we can all agree: a world without lines would be a world with a lot of accidents. 

The same is true for bands. I witness fender benders almost every week. 

  • Drummers play through a break
  • Bass players go back to the verse a bar early
  • Guitar players play the wrong strumming pattern
  • Music directors count off songs in 3/4 with "one, two, three, four"

Understanding how to measure music matters if we want to have tight bands. 

Reading Time Signatures

Time signatures define our measures. They tell us 

  • What note gets the beat
  • How many beats are in a bar 
  • Where the accents lie

I have no doubt my graphic above – with all the time signatures – looks a little scary to some readers. But time signatures are pretty simple to figure out once you know how to read them. Let's stick with our old friend 4/4 as we unpack this. 

What note gets the beat? 


The bottom number tells you what gets the beat (bottom=beat). So finding the beat is pretty easy:

  • Replace the top number with 1.
  • Now say the fraction out loud.

That’s what gets the beat. Therefore, in 4/4 time, the quarter note (1/4) gets the beat. In 6/8 time, the eighth note (1/8) gets the beat. 

How many beats per bar? 


The top number tells you how many beats are in a bar. In 4/4 there are four quarter notes per bar. In 6/8 there are six eighth notes per bar. 

Where do the accents lie? 

The last question time signatures answer is where the accents lie. Going back to the tree house analogy, this is the weight distribution question. It is not as easily explained, but let's try it this way. 


How many boxes are there above? 

What about in this line? 


Time signatures tell us how to group music together – the above being a visual representation of 6/8. Just as it is more pleasing to look at an image that has order, so too is it more pleasing to listen to music that has order. 

Unfortunately, I don't know a quick and dirty tip for remembering which beats to emphasize in each time signature. You just have to learn them. We will cover this next week.


How we measure music makes a difference. Today we've covered the why question and how to read and understand time signatures. Next week we will unpack the four most common time signatures: how each one feels, associated drum grooves, strumming patterns, and listen to audio examples for each. I will also post the world premiere video of my biggest time signature-related gaffe on stage. It was a doozy. You won't want to miss it! 

Until then, I leave you with the intro and verse of a favorite Sting song. "Love Is Stronger Than Justice" features a 7/8 groove that slips in and out of a double-time feel.

Four Chords

My buddy Grant forwarded this tweet to me.


Hilarious. I could write a post asking for more creativity, but that's for another time.

Today this tweet reminds me that one of the goals for the music theory series: to help us and our bands understand and use the number system. Once you get there, you quickly see the patterns that show up over and over again in worship music. Playing from memory or changing keys isn't so daunting. 

I like the video below because it adjusts the track's pitch and tempo so they are all the same. This creates terrible artifacts in some songs, but it makes a great point. It only takes a basic understanding of rhythm and harmony to quickly see past keys and tempos, and discover the common patterns that tie so many songs together. 

If you're like me, you'll quickly get the point and won't make it through the lengthy video!

I pray everyone has a great week. Remember, this music we play isn't all that special. It is the Spirit of God in you and in your congregation that makes all the difference. 

Question: What are common patterns you've seen in popular worship songs today? 

Theory Thursday: Part One, The Foundation of Sound

The art of arranging sounds in time so as to produce a continuous, unified, and evocative composition. – Definition of Music from

Music is the art of arranging sounds in time. To me, I think of music in two ways: vertical music and horizontal music. 


Today we start our multi-part music theory series with the vertical axis of music: pitch. 

Pitches and Frequencies

If music is the art of arranging sounds, what is sound? Our ears hear  sound by sensing vibrations through the air. The frequency of those vibrations are what we perceive as pitch. When in tune, the A string on an acoustic guitar vibrates, cycling back and forth 110 times per second (or 110 Hz). 

Humans have the capacity to hear from 15Hz to 18kHz, although our hearing diminishes over the course of life, particularly the high end. 

Creating Order

Our ears are marvelous, but so is our brain. While our brain cannot distinguish individual frequencies, it will interpret those frequencies and create order. For example, your brain will not know you are hearing 220Hz and 440Hz, but it will perceive that you are hearing a frequency two times greater than the previous. 

We don't hear individual frequencies as raw numbers; we hear ratios

The Octave

Consonance is an interval (two notes together) that is pleasant to our ears. Dissonance is its opposite – displeasing to our ears. 

The most consonant interval in music – outside of unison – is the octave. 

Each A on the keyboard is pressed. Octaves.

Octaves are created by doubling the frequency. The bottom A is 110Hz, followed by 220Hz, 440Hz and 880Hz. 

Our ears perceive the 2:1 relationship as the same pitch. This is very similar to elementary math class and least common denominators. 

  • 2/1 = 2  
  • 4/2 = 2  
  • 8/4 = 2

In the same way, frequencies and pitches:

  • 110Hz = A 
  • 220Hz = A
  • 440Hz = A

Perfect Intervals

Intervals like the octave are called "perfect" because of the relationship between the notes. There are four perfect intervals:

  • Perfect unison – 1:1
  • Perfect octave – 2:1
  • Perfect fifth – 3:2  
  • Perfect fourth – 4:3

The perfect fifth is a 3:2 ratio, or 1.5. Let's take A 440Hz and multiply it by 1.5, that gives us 660Hz, also known as E. We will talk more about intervals in future posts.  

Why All the Talk of Ratios? 

I could have started this way: music has seven notes: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. You write these using little ovals on a staff that has five lines....

But that's not how we operate in modern bands. For one, we don't use a lot of music with lines and spaces, ovals and dots. The most successful modern musician uses their ear.

We play songs that follow predictable patterns. These patterns are found in how the notes and chords relate to each other. Understanding these relationships is key to being an effective worship musician. And these relationships are built on the foundation of how our brain perceives vibrations in the air.


Music is the art of arranging sounds in time: vertical music and horizontal music. Where the sound falls on the vertical axis is called pitches. Pitches are names given to frequencies.

While it is super interesting to look at the physics of music and why it all works mathematically, keeping up with 18,000 frequencies and working out ratios isn't exactly practical. That's why western music has broken down the octave into 12 notes. That's where we start next week


Special thanks to the following websites:
Jim Aikin has written over the years for magazines like Keyboard, Electronic Musician, and Mix. He has a great series on his website call “Just Intonation".
Great article on the workings of the ear. 

[UPDATE 2012-09-21: This article has been revised changing the second-to-last sentence to say "12 notes" instead of "seven notes". My first thought was of the scales that frame western music, but the 12 notes of the octave is a better starting point.]